Build a Diverse Team, Engage Students in Every Step and Develop Strong Leaders

March 15, 2019

Tony Fuller.

Anthony Fuller at the Bass Connections Showcase in 2017. Photo: Susan Gallagher

Passionate about neurosurgery and global health, Anthony Fuller has led Bass Connections project teams dedicated to improving neurosurgical care for patients in Uganda since 2016. In partnership with Duke’s Division of Global Neurosurgery and Neurology (DGNN) and Mulago National Referral Hospital, Fuller and his team have developed, tested and evaluated interventions aimed at infection control, patient-family education and medication management in the neurosurgery ward. These interventions have contributed to notable improvements in infection rates as well as DGNN’s long-term vision of helping improve neurosurgical training, operations and infrastructure in East Africa.

Fuller is currently Assistant Professor in Neurosurgery. Beginning his work on the team as a medical student at Duke, Fuller received the Bass Connections Award for Outstanding Mentorship in 2017. Below are excerpts from his remarks at a Bass Connections orientation for team leaders.

Bass Connections team members.
Project team members. Photos: Courtesy of Bass Connections team

Student Leadership

We’ve had a team going on four years. Our team’s focus is in Uganda. Through three subteams, we’re trying to improve neurosurgical outcomes.

Each year, our team has 9-12 undergraduates and usually three grad students and med students, which creates a multilayered mentorship model. It’s a good practice to try to pick students who will be working with us for a while—more than one year. We really look for a passion for doing global surgery work, and we try to pick people at different levels [not all seniors, for example]. The students who have stayed with us from the beginning are now the leaders of the group.

Preparation and Engagement

Our team travels: each year we take 10 people to Uganda. To make sure that the students are prepared, we have a series of lectures in advance. They learn about the culture and what to expect.

We make sure students are engaged in every step. We start with research questions, but students are driving the research design. It’s been super useful to engage students this way as it provides them with true ownership of the project.

At our meetings, the students lead the discussions. Then the team leaders talk them through the process. Students own every aspect, and you as a leader help to shape it. The students develop what they’ll end up doing.

We’ve had three follow-on research projects and two undergraduate honors thesis projects come out of the team so far. They own their research, and we make sure our students have a chance to present [at conferences and other venues]. They also see in the broader DGNN team meetings how their work is being received and used by others, which is good for them.

Student-driven Impact

It’s been a tremendous opportunity to work on this, and our students have been amazing. The infection rate [in the neurosurgical ward at Mulago National Referral Hospital] was in the forties when we started. Through this project it has dropped down to less than 8%, driven mainly by the work that undergrads were able to do.

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